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A Denzel Washington Oscars loss will feel like a loss for all of us

The ‘Fences’ star’s long, weird Academy Award journey should end with a home run

Since Nov. 8, 2016, we’ve been in a dire search for hope.

This search for hope and happiness leads us to place more weight on social and sporting events. Like the recent Super Bowl, for example — in which the Falcons, who make their home in majority-black Atlanta, faced off against a New England Patriots team known for cheating, and for its leaders supporting President Donald Trump. It all takes on a higher meaning. Twitter was full of this-feels-like-election-night-all-over as the Patriots completed their improbable comeback. And just a few days ago, when Adele beat out Beyoncé for the Grammy for album of the year, the moment seemed like a thick patch of fog over our collective consciousness: We just can’t win right now.

In a few days, our newly elevated sensitivities will be front and center as the Academy Awards are broadcast worldwide, and the films Moonlight and Hidden Figures are up for best picture. Octavia Spencer is up for best actress and Viola Davis is up for best supporting actress — at least 10 black actors and filmmakers are nominated.

And then there’s Denzel Washington, who is up again for best actor, this time for his intense and painful role as Troy Maxson in the acclaimed adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s Fences. As the film is also up for best picture, Washington, 62, is up for that award also — he directed the film. The nods, besides celebrating cinematic excellence, seem a(nother) chance for Oscar to celebrate blackness — or to give us the shaft again.

Washington has been here before. He’s felt the sting of an Academy Awards committee and has developed a complicated history with the organization that is inextricable from his legendary career. Including this year, Washington been nominated five times for the coveted best actor award, and he’s won once for a role as a crooked cop. A role that isn’t anywhere near his best work. On Sunday the Oscars can rectify wrongs that have been perpetrated against Washington for the last 25 years.

Why did Denzel have to go crooked/ Before he took it?

— Jadakiss, from 2004’s “Why

Washington’s performance as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s titular 1992 biopic is the greatest feat of acting ever recorded. I stand by this argument and have no problem defending it until my dying breath. Washington played four entirely different characters over the course of 3 1/2 hours. He was streetwise Detroit Red, awakening prisoner Malcolm Little, militant Malcolm X, and finally el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.

Washington as Malcolm X was more than a movie. It was a cultural awakening.

Close your eyes and think about the actual Malcolm X. Go ahead. Do it. I guarantee Washington pops into your mind. That’s how much he embodied Malcolm X. And beyond that powerful association, Washington’s performance cemented an early ’90s affection for Malcolm X and a then new black power movement that permeated the culture from Cross Colours to hip-hop bands like Public Enemy to “X” necklaces to a renewed fascination with X’s speeches, as well as his autobiography. Washington as Malcolm X was more than a movie. It was a cultural awakening.

Four months after Malcolm X was released, Washington sat in the audience at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and watched Al Pacino win best actor for his role as a blind retired army officer in Scent of a Woman. The decision remains one of the great travesties of any awards show, ever. Yes, even worse than Adele’s win over Beyoncé.

Spike Lee, though, in 2014, had an explanation devoid of racial dynamic: “In sports, there’s a thing called a makeup call,” he said, noting Pacino had been overlooked for seven best actor awards, including for his transcendent turns in the first two films in The Godfather film series. “Denzel already won [Best Supporting Actor] for Glory. And he’s young. [The academy says] ‘Denz is coming back, so we gotta give it to Al.” The fiasco is reminiscent of how the NBA seems to dole out coveted MVP awards to great but less-qualified players like Steve Nash with the assumption that all-time great players like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal would eventually win awards later. As a result, Bryant and O’Neal, who have nine NBA titles between them, only have two combined MVPs over the course of their respective Hall of Fame careers.

Yet while the Oscars were passing on Washington, black America became fully entranced by an actor unafraid to be us every time he was on the screen.

But for many African-Americans, the sting of Washington not winning the Academy Award for his Malcolm X performance is ongoing. No black actor had won best actor since Sidney Poitier for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, and the belief persists that Washington’s blackness, combined with Malcolm X’s message as portrayed in the film and Spike Lee’s commentary on the April 1992 Rodney King/L.A. riots made for a cocktail the academy wanted no part in recognizing. “[Lee] has been asked to speak about the riots last month in South Central Los Angeles,” the Seattle Times speculated, “and the fear among much of the Hollywood community that his upcoming film Malcolm X, due in November, could stir more racial unrest.”

Washington’s star-making turn as Trip in 1990’s Glory earned him a best supporting actor award — his first Oscar. The statuette added a level of gravitas to his devastating performance, and helped propel the film to more prominence and wider audiences. The media at the time lauded Washington’s performance as different from his more genteel roles in 1984’s Oscar-nominated A Soldier’s Story and 1989’s quirky, brilliant The Mighty Quinn. “The guy I play in Glory is raw and rough,” Washington said in 1989. “A field Negro, not a house Negro, and he’s a real survivor.” The unforgettable “single tear” scene made Washington a ’90s Hollywood contender.

After Glory, Washington took on roles that were brilliant but overlooked by awards committees. His turn as tormented jazz musician Bleek Gilliam in Spike Lee’s 1990 Mo’ Better Blues helped make the film a cult classic in many black communities, but it didn’t receive awards consideration. Yet while the Oscars were passing on Washington, black America became fully entranced by an actor unafraid to be us every time he was on the screen. Washington loved us by being us: by expertly showcasing the best, most hopeful black folks we can be — and showing the struggles of the damaged among us. And when Washington’s characters were in white spaces (think Crimson Tide and Philadelphia), he stood toe-to-toe with white counterparts in defiance of what they thought about him and his character’s “proper” place.

Even though Washington left the Oscars empty-handed in 1993, studios noticed his box office power. Malcolm X, a precursor to films such as 2004’s Ray and 2001’s Ali, became a $50 million movie, remarkable for a three-hour film that centered on the African-American experience. After his Malcolm X snub, Washington returned with a gripping performance as an anti-gay lawyer in 1993’s Philadelphia, a movie that earned Tom Hanks a best actor award even though Washington shone as brightly. “Mr. Hanks gives a brave, stirring, tremendously dignified performance as a man slowly wasting away,” said a New York Times review. “But Mr. Washington, who is also very fine as the small-minded shyster who becomes a crusading hero, has the better role.”

Still, Washington’s performance heightened his demand and led to box office success with films such as Crimson Tide and The Pelican Brief — brilliant performances that became standard, though they weren’t getting award consideration. Washington also spent much of the mid-’90s making top-dollar thrillers such as The Siege and The Bone Collector that didn’t add to his legacy as a premier actor.

A 1996 People cover story proclaimed a “Hollywood Blackout,” and called the continued exclusion of African-Americans from the film industry a “national disgrace.” It also wondered why black actors and actresses, especially Washington for his role as Easy Rawlins in 1995’s Devil In A Blue Dress, wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar despite Washington and Don Cheadle functioning as Splash Brothers for the whole movie with an on-screen chemistry and one-upsmanship that elevated both performances. Out of 166 nominees for that year’s Oscars, only one was African-American.

The numbers are absurd. Especially considering that Washington was arguably the best actor in Hollywood at the time. He’d shown an ability to make good films great and great films legendary. He simply had it all: dominating presence in every scene, the ability to pull of action as well as romance, and of course his sex appeal. Each year Washington was still without that best actor Oscar, the supposed inevitability of his big win gave way to doubt.

Washington responded by turning in roles that could have each earned him an Oscar and are certainly among the most memorable of his career. In a precursor to his role in Fences, Washington played troubled father Jake Shuttlesworth, an out-of-luck former basketball player, in 1998’s He Got Game, and delivered some of the best one-liners — “No I’m not like everyone else, Son. Everyone else ain’t your father.” — and on-screen fire of his career. There was also his unforgettable role as hard-edged coach Herman Boone in 2000’s Remember The Titans. The movie was full of legendary Denzel speeches that stand in the annals of sports movie infamy — his “You’re killing me, Petey!” speech standing above the fold. Both roles were worthy of Oscar consideration, but Washington was not even nominated.

The worst transgression from the academy was when Washington’s role as Hurricane Carter — a boxer wrongly convicted and jailed for murder — earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor … that he lost to Kevin Spacey for his performance in American Beauty. Washington was absolutely dynamic as Carter, putting in his most captivating role since Malcolm X.

I’m innocent. I’ve committed no crime. A crime’s been committed against me. Washington’s character was defiant, angry, broken and persistent. The excuse for Washington’s loss was wrapped up in the idea the movie was too historically inaccurate, which in reality has no effect on an individual actor’s performance. With this loss, the whispers of racial motivations for Washington’s inability to capture the coveted Oscar became roars.

“He deserved an Oscar for Best Actor for The Hurricane and Malcolm X,” Charles Barkley wrote about Washington’s Oscar snubs in his 2002 bestseller I May Be Wrong But I Doubt It. “It was silly that the problems with … accuracy … wound up penalizing Denzel. How stupid and how unfair is it to hold The Hurricane to this lofty standard when every picture in Hollywood is dramatized to some extent … And Denzel’s performance as Malcolm X was one of the great, great performances to me, not just that year, but over many years.”

The outrage over Washington getting snubbed again was undeniable. People ran a sequel to its “Hollywood Blackout” article in 2001, discussing inequalities in casting and award recipients. That same year, Washington opened up about snubs. “I hope guilt goes a long way,” he joked to a group of journalists when asked about his prospects for winning an award for his first turn as a bad guy in Training Day. “I’ve heard I was robbed over and over … What I try to do is my best. Movies are really about entertaining the public.”

Washington winning an Oscar for Training Day was a relative lock as the 2002 award season approached. His role as a psychotic, violent cop was a far cry from any of his previous on-screen characters and the cries for him to finally win Best Actor were deafening. And the last thing the academy wanted was another year of being accused of racism. So the 2002 Academy Awards became a coronation of sorts for Washington and African-Americans as a whole.

Washington won his first Oscar for best actor for his role in Training Day while Halle Berry won best actress — the first time for a black woman. Berry played a drug-addicted mother in Monster’s Ball. The short-term euphoria of Washington’s and Berry’s victories were replaced by the realization that these two actors had to play villains and drug addicts to get their awards.

Washington’s best actor win for Training Day was more lifetime achievement award than an actual reflection of his performance as Alonzo. The fact is, Denzel’s performance was standard Denzel. He could be Alonzo in his sleep, and was just as good in his subsequent films, John Q, Man On Fire, American Gangster and Antwone Fisher. If Training Day was worth an Oscar, so were those roles and countless others. And at the end of the day, Washington has Oscars for portraying a slave, and a crooked, immoral cop. The message appears clear from members of the academy: Play a character we’re comfortable with, and we’ll award you.

Washington has only been nominated for best actor twice in the 15 years since winning for Training Day, one for Flight in 2012 and for Fences. Flight went against Daniel Day-Lewis’ great portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, so it never really stood a chance. In 2017, however, Washington has a real chance — but nothing is promised. And there’s last week’s Grammys — Adele is tucked in London with Beyoncé’s Lemonade award.

It would be great to see Washington awarded for his tour de force in Fences, and as one of the greatest actors ever. But I’m going into Oscar night convincing myself that there’s no way Washington is going to beat out Ryan Gosling or Casey Affleck. It would be beautiful to see Washington — and Moonlight, and Viola Davis, and Barry Jenkins win Oscars. But I find it hard to let myself think they’ll actually hold trophies on Sunday. We’re so connected to these avatars of excellence that rejections of “our” stars’ greatness is a rejection of ourselves. And that praise upon them is praise upon us. That’s why we cheer for them. And allow ourselves to get worked up and nervous — all of which makes the disappointment hurt even more.

Of course, it the grand scheme of things, Oscars shouldn’t mean much. Neither should the Grammys. Or Super Bowls. But right now, in this season of loss and despair, any win that makes us feel excellent is welcome, allowing us moments of happiness while we focus on more pressing issues. Awards don’t define our greatness. Denzel doesn’t need awards to be a shining example of excellence. And we damn sure don’t either.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.